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Good Questions From a Senator and an Activist

Over in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, a senator and an activist raised a series of important questions that deserve to be aggressively pursued.

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) took to the Senate floor to talk about torture, the campaign of falsehood that has been pursued by its defenders, and the many things the public still doesn't know.

Meanwhile, at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, suggested questions that the Obama administration needs to answer before it embarks upon a regime of prolonged detention.

Whitehouse, in his floor speech, started with some questions about the torture itself:

What did Americans do? In what conditions of humanity and hygiene were the techniques applied? With what intensity and duration? Are our preconceptions about what was done based on the sanitized descriptions of techniques justified? Or was the actuality far worse? Were the carefully described predicates for the torture techniques and the limitations on their use followed in practice? Or did the torture exceed the predicates and bounds of the Office of Legal Counsel opinions?....

What was the role of private contractors? Why did they need to be involved? And did their peculiar motivations influence what was done? Ultimately, was it successful? Did it generate the immediately actionable intelligence protecting America from immediate threats that it had been sold as producing? How did the torture techniques stack up against professional interrogation?...

There is another set of questions around how this was allowed to happen. When one knows that America has over and over prosecuted waterboarding, both as crime and as war crime; when one knows that the Reagan Department of Justice convicted and imprisoned a Texas sheriff for waterboarding prisoners; when one sees no mention of this history in the lengthy opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel at DOJ that cleared the waterboarding--no mention whatsoever; when assertions of fact made in those OLC opinions prove to be not only false but provably false from open source information available at the time; when one reads Chairman Levin's excellent Armed Services Committee reports on what happened at the Department of Defense, it is hard not to wonder what went wrong. Was a fix put in? And, if so, how?...

There has been no accounting of the wild goose chases our national security personnel may have been sent on by false statements made by torture victims seeking to end their agony; no accounting of intelligence lost if other sources held back from dealing with us after our dissent into what Vice President Cheney refers to as the "dark side"; no accounting of the harm to our national standing or our international good will from this program; no accounting of the benefit to our enemies' standing--particularly as measured in militant recruitment or fundraising; and no accounting of the impact this program had on information sharing with foreign governments whose laws prohibit such mistreatment.

And Whitehouse urged the Obama administration to declassify information that would expose the lies:

[T]here has been a campaign of falsehood about this whole sorry episode. It has disserved the American public.... [F]acing up to the questions of our use of torture is hard enough. It is worse when people are misled and don't know the whole truth and so can't form an informed opinion and instead quarrel over irrelevancies and false premises. Much debunking of falsehood remains to be done but cannot be done now because the accurate and complete information is classified...

It is intensely frustrating to have access to classified information that proves a lie and not be able to prove that lie. It does not serve America well for Senators to be in that position.

While congressional and executive branch investigations continue, he said,

I want my colleagues and the American public to know that measured against the information I have been able to gain access to, the story line we have been led to believe--the story line about waterboarding we have been sold--is false in every one of its dimensions.

Over at that Senate hearing, Malinowski, in his prepared remarks, suggested questions the committee should ask if Obama actually proposes some sort of system of preventive detention:

First, can Guantanamo detainees be moved to a new system of detention without trial in the United States without making it seem like Guantanamo was being transplanted to U.S. soil? Would such a new system repair the damage Guantanamo has done to America's reputation, or perpetuate it?...

A second question is whether one can create a new form of preventive detention without enduring more years of frustration and delay?...

A third question I hope you'll ask is whether the risk of releasing truly dangerous people would be lower with a preventive detention system, or higher?...

A fourth question is whether a preventive detention system would effectively delegitimize terrorists in the way that the criminal justice system does?...

That leads me to a final question: Would a preventive detention system actually prevent terrorism?

Malinowski made no secret of his views on the matter:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

By Dan Froomkin  |  June 11, 2009; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  Torture  
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I think that long-term Obama strategy is to allow the vast majority of the collective "torture documents" to eventually become public over the course of his predidential term. It'll be a slow, drip, drip, drip of revelations over a long period of time. (Ironic when we're talking about waterboarding, huh?)

Some will become public as a result of court actions (as previously pointed out by Froomkin). However, if there are lengthy "gaps" in the disclosure of new torture revelations, I predict the Obama administration with then selectively disclose new facts about torture committed by the US (and approved - although probably actually driven by - the Cheney administration). Such a disclosure schedule will keep the torture issue in the public's eye over a long period of time, until - viola - abvout a year before the 2012 election, the entire shameful story will be out in the open for all to see. This horrendous chapter in American history will then be used by the Obama campaign against any and all Republican candidates who supported (and continue to support to this day) Guantanamo and U.S. torture policy.

It is pretty craven strategy, politically. But Cheney, Bush and their minions (and the Republican Party which continues to apologize for, and refuses to distance itself from, these misguided policies) will have no one but themselves to blame.

If the Republicans were smart, they'd lance the boil that is the "torture debate" so the party can put it behind them. But they appear to be going in the opposite direction.

Posted by: Buster3 | June 11, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

And those who accuse Obama of being no different from Bush--as unintelligent an opinion as there can be--simply look at the text of the questions in the post above. What's different from the Cheney/Bush years? The presence of questions, and debate, at all. The single biggest change Obama has made to the practice of the previous regime has been to move so much of the program into the realm of public debate with Congress.

I'm also aware that international operations against terrorists, and potential terrorists--including raids and renditions--still occur. Those are part of the "quiet war" most of us thought the government was going to engage in after 9/11, with highly targeted, more clandestine work. (Certainly not the idiotic invasion of Iraq.) To think that we can combat terrorists worldwide and not be aggressive is foolish (but that argument is one of the right's favorite straw men). However, the norm under Cheney and Bush was so far to the abusive extreme as to be criminal. Obama, by opening the debate on how to conduct the programs, has already shifted the norm far toward the opposite direction of the rule of law. (Not the rule of executive caprice.)

Posted by: whizbang9a | June 11, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

The Obamaniacs cannot stop making excuses for his staying on the Bush/Cheney course. A real moral person would have made substantive changes on January 20, 2009. Obama talks "change we can believe in", yet he continues the war/mistreatment of POW strategy.

Just last month President Obama was responsible for the bombing (including a 2000 pound bomb) of 147 innocent civilians in a small Afghani village. POWs are still being held at Guantanamo, Cuba, and though we don't know about their current treatment there I'll bet it is less than humane. The war in Iraq goes on... and still Americans justify the inhumanity.

Posted by: frazeysburger | June 11, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

As a Rhode Island voter, I am pleased to see Sen Whitehouse take the lead on this critical issue. He makes very importnat points that must be resolved if this country is ever to retake the high moral ground and lance the hypocracy boil that is destroying our national and international reputation. America must face the hypocracy claiming that we do not do torture or that torture can be justified by the results while everyone knows that these claims are manifestly false.

We need a full and complete investigation on the war and torture. If there were laws broken, those responsible need to be held accountable... whether Republican or Democrat. For those leaders who were framers of the government policies that were based on fraudulent information, or for those leaders who were either complicent or cowardly looked the other way, we need to know about this. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Also, to cover up these problems demonstrates a complete lack of any understanding of our Consitution and what has made America the greatest country in the world.

Thank You Sen Whitehouse for keeping up the pressure.

Steven Richards

Posted by: scr02882 | June 11, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Senator Whitehouse.

Posted by: jpk1 | June 11, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

And thank you Dan, along with Sullivan, Greenwald and all the other bloggers who keep this front and center.

Posted by: JCinCT | June 11, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Please! We can't have our government embarrassed by the crimes it committed. Oh, sorry, we can' have Republicans embarrassed by the crimes against humanity Republicans committed. There, that's better. Besides, even Saint Obama wants to cover up the crimes. Oh, sorry, again, techniques not crimes. I guess he's thinking of using them agian. On us.

Posted by: davidbn27 | June 11, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

why are senators so cowed by assertions of secrecy, even when such assertions violate the law and their conscience? doesn't article 1 sec. 6 of the constitution protect them: "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." where is the senator brave enough to test this?

Posted by: mkel55 | June 11, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

mkel55--senators backing down from the disclosure debate, are doing so not because they fear legal penalties, but because they fear a backlash of public opinion. That's why Cheney and Bush had the Democrats on the run for the last two years of their administration: the Democrats were afraid of appearing to help the terrorists by stopping Cheney and Bush's programs. In short, the considerations are political, not legal.

That's why so much venting on pages like this is well-intentioned but misguided. There's a political aspect to every single decision in Washington.

Posted by: whizbang9a | June 11, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

The gentlemen take brave principled position, but on President Obama’s preventive detention, excessive dalliance. The approach holds promise for justice denied. Why not state without so much divaricating, that preventive detention is illegal, wrong, dishonest and gutless.

Luis de Agustin

Posted by: Luis_de_Agustin | June 11, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Cheney called it the Dark Side. It feels more and more like a veil of darkness, a new Dark Age, is spreading over all humanity.

That this is happening under Obama -- who was elected because he stood for everything that was the opposite of Bush -- makes it especially ominous.

Posted by: cristca9 | June 12, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

As others have noted, thanks for keeping this front and center.

I'm heartened that Sen. Whitehouse not only has read the documents, but he's gone to the trouble of digging into the information to discover the fallacies.

My friends in the services want this information to come out. This is a stain on their character as professional interrogators.

Posted by: boscobobb | June 13, 2009 2:16 AM | Report abuse

The Obamaniacs cannot stop making excuses for his staying on the Bush/Cheney course. A real moral person would have made substantive changes on January 20, 2009. Obama talks "change we can believe in", yet he continues the war/mistreatment of POW strategy.

Posted by: frazeysburger | June 11, 2009 1:31 PM |
It amuses me that the anti-Obama crowd crow about the fact that Obama has not completely cleaned up the 5,000,000 pound bag of C?AP that Bush left in the presidential in-box. It's like they expect the captain of a 500 million ton freighter to whip a U-Turn. What a bunch of maroons!

Posted by: lgaide | June 15, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

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